The Happiness Dodge

I had a drink with a friend recently who confessed to me that he was feeling rather depressed at the moment. He’s a lawyer (and no – I am not going to make some smart-guy comment about that being the source of his depression), and one who had just won a major case. Like me he’s in his fifties and a divorced father. Unlike me he’s been through two divorces (one for me was more than enough), and nearly got married a third time, even though he felt profoundly ambivalent about the high-powered corporate executive who wanted to be his Wife Number Three.

I have known Christopher for years – and ours is the sort of friendship where confidences are exchanged (and, as such, I have changed many significant details about his life in this re-telling of our recent meeting). But what fascinates me most about his intimate life – or, at least, the parts that he reveals to me – is the way he is frequently compromising himself into a situation he knows is so wrong for him.

Such as:

His second wife, Susan, was hyper-intellectual, but emotionally cold. And ‘the sex was never good’.

To which I had to ask (when he revealed this detail to me during their divorce):

“Then why did you marry her?”

“Good question”.

Christopher often talks ruefully about lost opportunities, roads not taken, bad decisions on his part. Such as:

A woman six years ago with a non-insubstantial family fortune, a house on Cape Cod, and a real desire to be with him.

“She really was crazy about me”.

“Then what was the problem?” I asked.

“She wanted me too much”.

Laugh if you like – but one of the more intriguing aspects of the human condition is the way we all frequently run away from the prospect of happiness, and how we often dodge the thing we most want.

Because, of course, happiness disturbs us. We crave it, and simultaneously throw up so many defensive strategies against it. Because to be happy is to be…

Now therein lies a major existential question. Is happiness an actual state-of-mind, a state-of-being, or something more illusory?

A few weeks back I saw a rather disappointing production of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters at the usually wonderful Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago (well, every creative enterprise – like every working writer/director/painter/musician etc – is allowed a misstep or two). Despite the rather clunky descents into American vernacular (Even if there is an actual Russian equivalent of the expression, ‘blah, blah, blah’, it sent my literary bullshit meter into the deep red zone when uttered onstage), the play still remains one of the key works in the twentieth century theatrical canon because it speaks volumes about the tendency towards self-sabotage with we all (to one extent or another) engage, and how we create for ourselves lives that we know we don’t want, yet still talk ourselves into. Our very own cul-de-sacs, very much of our own making.

As one of the characters notes, life is struggle, and happiness is just a moment here-and-there.

Yes there is a certain truth lurking behind that statement. But concurrently I wish to posit the idea that we all have an emotional weather system that dictates so much about the way our destiny spins out. To many of us this weather system is an immovable cold front that casts gloom or despair or constant anxiety on everything connected with our sentient lives. To others it is a state of mind that cannot be altered. We stay in bad marriages, dead-end jobs, lives that have been denuded of curiosity because we believe it’s our lot, what we deserve. And so many of us have gone into therapy as a way of trying to alter its direction, to no longer be beholden to its inclement stubborness (and that’s the end of climatic metaphors for today).

So happiness might also be a form of interpretation. Then again, what in life isn’t governed by disparate perspectives? I have known friends who have endured the most crippling of tragedies and have managed to persevere – not to find ‘closure’ (a word I despise), but some sort of accommodation with the most grievous of losses. Just as I know people who have come unstuck over what to the rest of us might seem a minor setback.

But who am I to say that the trivial event that has so unsettled you is, in fact, trivial? That may be my interpretation. But it is not the interpretation. Because when it comes to the vast complexity that is the human condition, there is never one interpretation. There is just the muddle in which we all dwell.

And whether we consider the muddle to be just that – quotidian banality laced with quiet desperation – or a muddle that is bracing, engaging, worth the ongoing struggle … well, that too is interpretation… and one which so governs how we live our lives.

  • Rebiere Olivier

    Well, it is really hard to be happy, at the beginning. But it is possible if you want it, if you train for it, if you are more tolerant with the one you think you love and accept the present. It requires to make bold decisions, and then discipline to always appreciate what you have, tenderness and understanding to perpetuate your feelings.

    The story of your friend, the lawyer – who desperately seeks for perfectness in women (which does not exist, maybe in mathematics) – makes me remind of your sad and tragic novel, ironically called “the pursuit of happiness”, which I read for the second time a couple of weeks ago (french version).

    The characters try to govern their lives as best as they can but desperately miss the point with their emotional life: they do not have the strength to make the right decisions at the right time, they are not courageous enough. They try to protect the others on a short-term period at the cost of their own happiness on the long term. Wrong. To be happy, you have to be selfish and bold, at the beginning, and forget about the immediate consequences. Happiness is not for the short term, it is for the long.

    I do not want you to feel that it is a criticism of your novel which I really enjoyed, but I would like to say that it appears to me that it sounds like “whatever you do, you will suffer”. The “condition humaine”, like you say it, is also the possibility to make a choice, and when you realize it is the wrong, do your best to make it right and make another choice: better to have a divorce, even with a small child, than slowly destroy your life and those of the others for example.

    Anyway, this is a vast subject that you propose to us: “the fundamental struggle we have in life is with ourselves”. My answer would be: yes indeed, you have to struggle first to define what is happiness for yourself (and assume that the notion of happiness will change throughout your life) and then make strong decisions about it: get married, get divorced, leave your family, and so on… After that, struggle to calm yourself, to get in harmony and not forget that your actions are the ground on witch you stand. I would like to think that there are no Parcae who decide your fate and that the only one to blame for your unhappiness is yourself. Do not be a victim of circumstances, it is too easy. Be courageous to be happy.

  • Florence

    Dear Mr Kennedy, I’m an enthusiastic reader of your novels, I admire very much the tenacity and the courage of your characters. My favourite books are “The big picture” and “Leaving the world”… I must say I read them in French as it is my mother tongue, I hope you will excuse my spelling and grammar mistakes in English.
    I find the topic you raise on your blog very interesting and appealing. I saw that you named one of your novels (which I haven’t read yet) “The pursuit of happiness”… :-)
    In my view, the two main reasons why we try to keep away from happiness are guilt (especially when it is unconscious) and the unbearable thought of being mortal. In my view, as we are unable to admit our own end, we tend to stagnate in situations that make us suffer, because putting an end to a situation sends us back to the end of our life. In this way, end a relationship, leave a job, …might remind us of our own mortality. I think that once you’ ve accepted that your are mortal, that your life will not last forever and if you are amongst the priviledged people who have the means to give a new orientation to their existence(which is not the case for many persons on this planet), you will make new choices, much more beneficial for you and, by extension, for your loved ones.
    On the other hand, we feel guilty a lot, about so many things we do or don’t do. The reason might be our education, religion… Of course, some of us might believe that happiness comes after death and will last eternally… It is a point of view, shared by many. But if you don’t believe, what then ? I think guilt really needs to be examinated deeply and through the lens of the personal history of each person. Of course, I’m speaking about excessive and unnecessary guilt … “I have to stay with my husband/wife because I made a promise… or for the children…” And so, many of us forget that a healthy break, in time, creates much less damage than a constant state of tensions and conflicts.. And most of us know that, but… Then, of course, comes self-esteem, without it, how can you know what you really want and stand for it…how can you know who you really are ? You mention therapy in your introduction and I believe it is a real hope for the persons who are able to feel and realise they are constantly practising “self sabotage”, to understand why they do it and stop doing it. It takes time and perseverance but it is working. Although it also gives a new sense to the very famous quote “Cent fois sur le métier, remettez votre ouvrage” de Nicolas Boileau, as the journey to discover yourself never ends. Then, of course, you realise that nothing is ideal, that happiness is, like said in the play, a moment here and there but at least, you make yourself able to catch this moment… next time :-) I really agree with you on the fact that happiness is an interpretation, I guess it is a choice you make (when lucid enough) to adopt a particular point of view on life…
    Thank you so much for this topic … I really enjoyed to read your text about it and I learned a new word “dodge” Thank you also for your very good and exciting books…

    Best regards,


  • Lilou

    Je suis une spécialiste du self sabotage et j’ai souvent cherché à comprendre, est-ce la résultante des stigmates de l’enfance qui aboutit à un scénario d’échec inconscient que l’on reproduit indubitablement ? Les vestiges d’une bonne vieille morale judéo chrétienne (le paradis est ailleurs…) qui nous feraient prendre les décisions qui nous ferons du mal ?
    Et que dire si c’est l’autre qui prend la décision qui fait souffrir ? Du style je crève d’envie de t’aimer, mais je ne le ferais pas ?
    Y-a-t’il des gens qui pensent vraiment être dans la maitrise ? Et si oui cela cache t’il leur illusoire désir d’immortalité ?…

  • Geraldine kelly

    I have read all of Douglas Kennedys books. I can not wait for his new one. I live in Ireland and love how Ireland is mentioned in nearly all of his books.

  • Jane

    Personally I said here what I felt, because happiness is a personal thing, although it is so generously given to us invariably.

    Christopher, his problem, well no, not only his i believe, is that:

    For happiness, We don’t dodge, we know when we are happy, it is just so obvious. It is almost the basic instinct that born with us and dies with us and one that requires no special skills or training or us to be educated to learn how to identify or judge, we simply FEEL it, and it won’t be dodged, not in the least sense. We were happy and it was real, it happened, and we encountered happiness, but no, it does not stop there, not as if it should, as how we tell us so, and how we think it should be, it should be more, and there is something missing to make a happiness a real one, an ultimate one, a true one. Well, there will be always something missing. We are so perfectly liars that we have to say dodge so that we come to some terms with ourselves if we do so, to forgive to excuse ourselves from getting away from happiness, and so to make ourselves feel better, although not entirely, of course, how can we.

    How can we have happiness if we don’t know what happiness is? How can we stay happy if we keep following our minds instead of following our hearts? And how can we start to be happy if we cannot decide to be true to ourselves?

    The constant moaning of being unhappy or such sorts, is not a result of us constant dodging, but the constant pursuing for things, things that we thought that might make us happy, that we put into the equation of a formula of happiness by our minds, and constant pursuing for PERFECTION. As much as it is good for us, for having such a mind for ideal and dreams, it also destroys our basic instincts to know the basic self. We are not unhappy, most of us, we do feel, and we are, as a matter of fact, most of times. It is just that we are far too happy, that it is lost along the way as we walk with it, we keep ignore it, we keep looking forward, and all is gone and what companying us becomes insignificant.

    The more you have, the less you are happy. If only we can shout aloud and proud truthfully to ourselves – No, I don’t want that damn happiness, forget it, I just want… the moment you admit, instantly, you are stepping an inch closer to be happy, well as you are at least more peaceful with yourself, rather than going circles with yourself.

    We have to be honest and tell ourselves : We don’t want happiness, we want stuff, want some one, want this and that, and all that we feel desire at the moment we distant happiness, which is such an innocent girl that stays neutral and up to us to use as such a sound-nobel justification.

    There are three things that flaw us in such a way to keep us from happiness – VANITY, FEAR, and GREED.

    Having said this, I don’t think they are all evil, you know sometimes angels and demons don’t really differ much, it is all a matter of degree and balance, which is not necessarily to be 50/50, then one will fall once again a trap of perfection, a dwell well of unhappiness.

    So, there is such a thing as happiness, oh, so happening everywhere at every beat of the heart. Real or unreal, state of mind or being, does it really matter, does it really need to be conceptualised, or theorised in such a way as set to be taught? No, the more into this, the more complication to make it less recognisable and reachable, where in fact it is so simple a thing, one just need to feel, and see and one just need to be true for one’s own sake, if not always, at least in one’s secret place to look in the mirror and be able to smile, or open the window to get contact with all that is there life has to offer, to see and feel and question with all the senses one has, and marvel and muse. Ah, life is truly wonderful. Why the sky is blue and cloud so white, why the sun must be orange or red and the moon white changing shapes, no, no, no, don’t tell me to look it up in the books. That is not what I want, what I want is well, you know what I want.

    But then what is so wrong with depression, sometimes, it is a good thing to depress a bit, don’t you agree bitter sweet is far better than being just purely sooo completely sweet? Well, I do, I so damn do think so. Happiness is sometimes overated, just as how sadness is ALWAYS underated.

    Just be happy if you are sad, and be happy if you are happy. The real point is if one truly wants to be happy, DO NOT DODGE. Just take it as it comes, be whatever it is, even it means a depression. If you make a choice, then trust yourself for making that choice, had you lived once more, you would have made the same choice, as you reasoned so and so, So, if you cannot undone the mistake you so thought made, face it and correct yourself, start from the right ATTITUDE, therefore you can have peace, and hence the true happiness will come along.


  • Nan

    Interesting…but I don’t want life to be a struggle with moments of happiness here and there. I want life to be happiness with moments of struggle here and there. Am I being unrealistic? Probably. Happiness is choice though, don’t you think? It’s how you perceive events and people around you. It’s what you decide to accept, even if it may not be exactly what you think you want…often what we believe will make us happy will make others we’ve committed ourselves to unhappy. Then can we be happy? I don’t know. If I did, I’d probably be braver…

    Just finished The Moment–it was another fascinating journey with you. Thank you.